Fresh tracks: biotech skis take to the slopes.
BY BAY STEPHENS
What if sustainably derived materials can not only compete with traditional, petroleum-based materials, but actually beat them out? That was the first question Checkerspot founders asked themselves. Once the Berkeley, California-based biotech startup answered the question resoundingly in the affirmative, it set its sights on new pursuits: among them, building skis.
In the scope of history, every type of oil that humans have ever studied on a broad scale has been comprised of 14 triglycerides, or fatty acids, most derived from petroleum sources. Yet in nature, more than 200 naturally occurring triglycerides exist and have yet to be thoroughly probed for consumer application, much less to build skis. WNDR Alpine, the outdoor brand launched by Checkerspot in July 2019, is the first to utilize oils derived from algae to design new materials from the molecule up.
The Intention 110 backcountry ski is WNDR Alpine’s first product. And it’s the first of its kind, comprised of materials designed for skiing, rather than building skis from the leftovers of more lucrative industries such as construction. The best part? Checkerspot’s process allows scientists and designers to tweak the molecular components of a plastic or composite to bring out desirable characteristics, for skiing and beyond.
“We can go in and augment the specific ways that oil is behaving specific to applications through organic chemistry and through genetically engineered chemistry,” said Matt Sterbenz, WNDR Alpine’s founder and Checkerspot’s general manager for winter sports.
Sterbenz, a ski industry veteran and professional freeskier for a time, segued into ski building and launched the popular brand 4FRNT Skis in 2002. A defining feature of his company was changing the geometric shapes of skis to enhance performance, but he found his craft limited by the available ingredients to make skis.
“I became more and more desperate for new materials as I got more and more familiar with ski building,” Sterbenz said, “and there just weren’t very many other alternatives.”
For Sterbenz, Checkerspot furnished the opportunity to reimagine how we source materials. While the science is not exactly simple, the process has massive potential.
Scientists at Checkerspot’s molecular foundry in Berkeley grow algae in fermentation tanks. When they feed sugars to the organisms, the algae produce various oils depending on the specific strain the scientists are growing. They can also change the type of oil produced by manipulating the organism’s genetic code.
From there the oils are converted to different materials and tested for desirable qualities in Checkerspot’s material science arm, also located in Berkeley. These plastics and composites then ship out to Salt Lake City where Sterbenz and a crew of savvy ski industry pros craft skis in their design lab then test them in the mountain environment where they were designed to perform.
After ski testing, the riders send feedback to the biology and chemistry side to tweak the material in order to further improve performance.
“If you wonder why this hasn’t been done before, it’s because it’s really difficult,” said Xan Marshland, who heads up brand development for WNDR Alpine. “‘What if this ski had a little bit more pop?’ or ‘What if this ski had more edge hold?’ Some of it is translating the ski-performance terminology … back into materials’ performance characteristics that we can engineer for, and then using that information to inform the biology and chemistry.”
When the Checkerspot team saw the possibilities of these materials, they started the WNDR Alpine brand to act as proof of concept. They chose backcountry skiers as the target demographic because the ski’s development aligns with their ethos.
While not exactly simple, the process has potential to send big waves.
“If you’re a backcountry skier you’re fairly keen on preserving nature and your experience immersed in nature, therefore we used that as our guiding target demographic for our products,” said Sterbenz, who traded in park skis for pow skis and these days earns his turns on the skin track.
When it comes to skiing, materials have hardly progressed in the last 20 years, Sterbenz said, and the wasteful aspects of ski manufacturing have been largely ignored. In his mind, it’s time consumers were met with higher standards of production for the gear that gets them out on snow.
“I wholeheartedly believe that consumers are demanding more in the outdoor space than what they have available to them,” Sterbenz said. “And if they knew as much about how we manufacture gear as we’re learning about food systems, I think they’d be a hell of a lot more preferential in their buying behavior.”
Checkerspot has a lot more than skis cooking—from working to redefine materials for commodities the world over to recycling old skis—but the company’s entrance into the ski realm is certainly a watershed.
Though newly christened, WNDR Alpine has a measure of experience at the helm. And if these skis live up to the process behind them, the ski industry may never be the same.
Bay Stephens is a skier, kayaker and writer currently based in Ireland. He is a former Associate Editor for Mountain Outlaw magazine.